Case Against Mass Immigration

Landsburg makes cogent points in defense of freedom of immigration. His main line of reasoning is utilitarian:

When we admit an unskilled Mexican immigrant, his wage typically rises from about $2 an hour to $9 an hour -- call it a $7-per-hour gain. ...

He bids down wages, but that's a two-edged sword: It's bad for his fellow workers, but good for employers and good for consumers. (182-3)

I will continue the argument in a few seconds, but let me interject that the costs to the American workers outweigh the benefits to them. This is because the amount of capital goods per capita declines at least in the short term which lessens marginal productivity and makes Americans poorer. (The Mexican by Landsburg's own assumption migrates without any real, money, or human capital.) Mises points out, for example:

There is only one way to improve the standard of living of the population -- increase capital accumulation as against the increase in population. Increase the amount of capital invested per capita.

Landsburg estimates "from the labor-economics literature" that the Americans collectively incur a $3-per-hour loss. "To oppose that, you'd have to count an immigrant as less than three-seventh of an American." Even worse, under even the most conservative assumptions about "how to value a poor man's dollar against a rich man's, ... the immigrant's $7 gain is worth about five times the Americans' collective $3 loss. By that calculation, to justify keeping the immigrant out, you'd have to say he's worth less than one-fifth of an American citizen. In other words, you'd have to be a pretty enormous jerk." (183-5)

What makes the anti-immigrationist "Goofus" so callous? Landsburg has the following theory:

Usually we care about our loved ones more than strangers, and to some extent we care more about the poor than the rich: I'd rather help my daughter than help yours, and I'd rather help a starving Bangladeshi than a Microsoft vice president.

But Goofus favors neither his loved ones nor poor people; he favors relatively rich American strangers over relatively poor Mexicans.

Moreover, he favors them by at least a seven-to-three ratio, which is huge. (186)

Let me first concede the deontological argument. Americans cannot lawfully keep their wages up by doing what is unjust, namely, forcibly preventing migrations. It is everyone's natural right to walk the earth. Further, I agree with Landsburg that "Goofus, by denying American landlords the opportunity to rent to José, is violating a property right (not to mention the rights of all those Americans who want to hire José, or sell him groceries)." (185n5)

The situation is relevantly different with mass immigration, however, which will inevitably be unleashed if the US borders are fully opened. I'm saying that within months, 100 million poorest Africans will land in the New York City.

Open borders are an extremely egalitarian institution, especially now with very low transportation costs and efficient language learning. It equalizes wages for the same work done over all the earth, unless some areas are naturally suited for certain specific factories or farms. Landsburg's chief moral principle demands that Americans lower their own standard of living to that of Sudan, because the benefits to the Sudanese, etc. immigrants outweigh the costs to the natives, and on the net there is benefit, too. (Well, not really, since the population of Sudan will be restored in a short order, as its citizens mindlessly have more children; their plight will be quickly reintroduced.)

But Landsburg himself admits that his ethics "does not require Gallant to open up his living room" to strangers, because "Gallant values his privacy more than José values a spot in Gallant's living room." (185n4) In other words, turning one's house into a refugee camp is too great a sacrifice to be casually demanded of people. Why then can't we similarly argue that abject self-impoverishment on the part of the American people through 100% open borders is not an unequivocal injunction of morality itself?

As a result, Goofus can counter that he has his own interests not to become poor. It's not that he loves an American stranger more than a Mexican or African one; it's that all American strangers have an interest in common, namely, not to be crushed into grinding poverty by the huddled masses of immigrants. I love myself; every American loves himself, too; and these are sufficient reasons for all of us to limit immigration.

Look, the land in the world is parceled out among states. It so happens that although in my opinion all large states are illegitimate, some large states are better than others, even much better. Americans have through a Herculean effort managed to create a political and legal regime that, despite its numerous lamentable flaws, permits a measure of economic growth. Sudan, on the contrary, is a failed nation. I see no reason for Landsburg to punish success and reward failure by inviting mass migrations from Sudan to America.

How would that even differ from a military invasion of the Sudanese army into the US? Does Landsburg think that the Africans will be coming to America while clutching copies of Big Questions under their arms? What's to prevent these hundreds of millions of barbarians from recreating here the exact sort of inhuman system from which they fled?

The situation is very different when it comes to private communities or even cities. If company X is being run incompetently and is losing money, it is a very good thing that the rats can start abandoning the sinking ship. A more profitable company Y and society as a whole will benefit from the resources thereby released. But for large states, there is a contrary argument: the Sudanese are poor not because they lack technological knowledge or even capital, but because they lack capitalism, and easy immigration gives them a chance viciously to free ride on other people's economic wisdom.

My argument is valid not universally but only in our present unique situation of billions in great poverty and only a few countries with a decent standard of living. Since the ultimate cause of this tragic state of affairs is faulty ideologies on the part of the people, I would fully support open national borders in a world with universal laissez-faire capitalism.

If it is admitted that immigration will have to be limited, the only question that remains is whom to admit and how many. Relevant to this, there are factors that would greatly exacerbate the damage of mass immigration into the United States. These are:

  1. the welfare state;
  2. pressure on public services such as roads and emergency rooms which have not been designed to accommodate so many new arrivals;
  3. initial shortage of housing: where are these 100 millions wretches going to live?
  4. widely incompatible cultural practices that will lead to serious violent conflicts between immigrants and natives, i.e., an uptick in crime;
  5. political consequences -- again, when Mexicans come here and begin to influence government policy, won't they end up recreating here the very corrupt political system in Mexico?

In short, there will be a massive and terrifying disruption in our everyday lives as the immigrants try to settle in. Therefore, a case can be made for significant restrictions.

On the other hand, when businesses leave the US in search of cheap labor, I am unperturbed despite the apparent symmetry, because that, in addition to the net economic benefit of the sort Landsburg describes, encourages Americans to improve their country's political system to give these firms an incentive to stay.

Open borders for wealthy nations here and today and the resulting mass immigration waves are not a rational policy in the age of cheap transportation and deep poverty in many parts of the world that remains largely brutal, cruel, and dark.

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